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Do you suffer from the CCs?
Posted by: Editor
Posted on: Monday 10th September 2012


Tags  Cramp  |  Dan Bullock  |  Swim For Tri


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Cramping calves while swim training is an issue that affects most triathletes at some point. As a swim coach working with swimmers and triathletes I hear of this issue a lot but invariably it is always triathletes rather then swimmers suffering. Open water swims in cooler temperatures can bring this problem on quicker.

Usually it is the calves tensing up but sometimes it might be the arch of your foot. It might even reach your toes. Usually the problem arises towards the end of a tiring swim set (often exacerbated when using fins) and the day of or after a tough run/bike session.

This piece is a collection of experiences and suggestions that might help if you suffer from this affliction. You should always see a doctor if symptoms continue. Thanks to Alex Brooks from For Goodness Shakes for some of the nutritional information.

Think about the position we are asking of your legs when you swim, predominantly straight with the toes pointed. Try this now and feel the stretch in your calf. It is not a position the body likes and during 60 minutes of swimming your body will react to the abnormal position. For triathletes combining swim, bike and run training you can see how, apart from the swim, this is a position the body does not spend much time in.

Muscles contracting with effort and staying contracted can lead to cramping. Muscle cramps are common and their effects range from a mild ache to terrible pain. The causes of cramping can vary considerably, ranging from nutritional deficiencies, heat exhaustion and dehydration. This piece will focus on how to limit the onset of cramps through better preparation. Once a cramp has started it might be possible to swim through it or you may need to relax and stretch it. If you feel a serious cramp starting remember how buoyant your wetsuit is, roll onto your back, float and try to stretch the affected area.

Initially poor kicking technique can partially be to blame if you are kicking vigorously from the knee with ankles flexed at 90degrees. With the legs in this extremely unhydrodynamic position a lot of force is needed to try and create some forwards movement.

Unfortunately until the body is used to the new straighter leg position a good kicking technique can also cause problems. At the risk of bringing on the cramping early Ideally we would like to have the kick originate in the hip with a straighter leg. As we improve our swim technique in general then we rely on our legs less, which should help. The need to perform a powerful leg movement should diminish in time as the efficiency of the arms improve.

Also something to consider is that cramping is more likely if you have been cycling or running the day of or night before the swim. Even after all these years of swimming racing and training my calves (always the calves) cramp if I have run or been on the turbo the same day as a swim. The point at which they usually go is after a hard push off from the wall towards the end of a session when tired. In between repeats during the recovery period of a main set some gentle toe circling/calf stretching might help ward off the inevitable cramping starting. Gentler push offs from the wall might help but obviously at the risk of slowing your repeat times.

Minimising the risks

Stretching, nutrition, hydration and better technique seem to be the key points to minimizing the chances of cramp whichever articles you read. A deficiency in magnesium is another new hot topic in the realm of cramping, Magnesium controls the twitch reflexes of the muscles so a disturbance in this level can cause muscle spasms. However, with a healthy triathlon diet a deficiency is unlikely! Bananas and raisins seem to help with this, both being high in minerals.

Dehydration is another common factor that contributes to muscle cramps. This is due to the associated losses of minerals such as sodium, calcium and potassium through sweat. Along with the loss of sodium—a mineral that initiates signals from nerves, which in turn leads to muscle movement—and other minerals, the loss of fluid in the human body may cause muscles to become irritable. When the muscles are irritated in such a way, any slight stress, such as movement, may cause the muscles to contract and twitch uncontrollably, ie cramp.

While foods rich in magnesium, calcium and potassium are beneficial for health and performance, sodium has been found to be more responsible for muscle cramping. Electrolytes alone during training may only help the problem a little. You may need additional sodium intake during training, racing, as well as during the course of a day. Adding extra salt to your food, taking additional salt tablets during training and racing (be sure to drink plenty of fluid when taking salt tablets), and eating some foods that are naturally richer in sodium (versus processed foods with lots of chemicals) may help your problem.

Stretching

How much stretching do you do? the more I stretch on a daily basis the less I suffer from cramping. You will always see me stretching before I get in to race or train. When I say stretching I do not strictly mean an actual attempt at lengthening muscles or tendons as that style of stretching from the 70s and 80s has fallen out of favour. Stretching to me now means more of a gentle poolside warmup that will allow the muscles to warm from an increase in blood flow by gently mobilising all body parts.

Some simple stretches performed on dryland to help with ankle mobility and warming up the calves will help as it will encourage the legs to be more comfortable in the elongated front crawl kick postition.

The correct technique is to kick from the hip with the legs predominantly straight but with soft knees, toes pointed, and keep the movement small. Your ankles should not be more then a few centimetres (imagine a few centimetres, chances are it will still be an ideal 20-30cms.) Try not to present additional surface areas within the leg that will create drag through kicking with a bent knee or with the ankles flexed at 90 degrees. You want the water to flow down off the back and from under the stomach and not run into any obstructions. Work at this and supplement with some dryland exercises: pilates.about.com/od/pilatesmat/ss/Swimming.htm

If the toes pointed position proves to induce cramping then warmup the ankle area with the following: www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=10248 and www.goswim.tv/drilloftheweek_comments.php?id=3959_0_20_0_C

The plank position can be performed propped up on your elbows rather then with straight arms and this one will be very good for gaining the strength and control of the core to enable you to think about kicking in small movements from the hips: pilates.about.com/od/pilatesmat/ss/Plank.htm

Practice simple kick movements in the pool with your hands attached to the pool gutters. Work on feeling the legs get higher as the legs straighten and the toes spend more time pointed! 30 seconds kick, 20 seconds rest, repeat four times. Feel the big toes brushing against each other 2-3 times per second to get an idea of a smaller depth of kick.

When my calves feel tight a nice stretch I like to do before getting in the water is to stand on the pool steps and lower my heels. With my toes on the edge of the steps I can lower my heels below the level of the toes. This really gets a deep stretch into the calves and helps to really get some blood flow into the lower extremities and to ward off cramps starting:

  1. Stand with only the toes in contact with the pool steps.
  2. Lower the heels to a comfortable position aiming for them to go lower then the level of the toes.
  3. If you can, bend the knees slightly forwards to further the stretch
  4. Raise up onto your toes and then lower and repeat from 1).

With regard to diet, here are some helpful suggestions I collected from various reputable websites for athletes to check they are doing their best to ward off cramp beginning.

  • Warm-up and cool down properly
  • Hydrate regularly. Feeling thirsty usually means you are already partially dehydrated.
  • Avoid caffeine due to a strong diuretic effect (recently proven if taken in moderation to not be such the issue it was first thought from a recent study in the USA and featured in the August 2007 Triathlete issue) Plenty of fresh fruit and veg in your diet
  • Take on more fluids during training (if sweating heavily in warm weather ensure your sports drink contains salts/minerals etc.)
  • Watch urine color and volume to self assess hydration status, urine should be clear to light yellow when well-hydrated
  • Rest well
  • Eat at least one banana per day. Bananas are high in potassium.
  • Eat foods rich in calcium and magnesium, such as dairy products and green leafy vegetables. You may also consider a calcium/magnesium supplement.
  • If you suffer from recurrent cramps not responding to the above simple measures it might be time for you to see a doctor to rule out other causes.
  • Be aware that bodies continue to perspire while in the water during a swim set. Some people lose more fluids than others, and therefore also require more water.

You can get more information from these websites:


Dan Bullock runs Swim for Tri and is a highly regarded coach, winning London Region Coach of the Year in 2005/6 and 220 Coach of the Year in 2005.

Swim for Tri

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